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Interview: November 14, 2008

November 14, 2008

Award-winning thriller author John Lutz began writing in 1966 and has since gone on to publish over 40 novels and 200 short stories. His latest work of fiction, NIGHT KILLS, marks the return of homicide detective Frank Quinn, who was featured in the previous works DARKER THAN NIGHT and IN FOR THE KILL.

In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Lutz elaborates on the dynamic his protagonist shares with two recurring secondary characters and describes his fascination behind what motivates ordinarily cautious people to take unreasonable risks. He also shares details about his writing process and discusses some of his current projects, including a stand-alone caper story and a fourth Quinn novel to be released in 2009. You have always been a solid, reliable writer, yet NIGHT KILLS is a quantum leap for you, easily one of your best works and arguably one of the best police procedural novels published this year. You take a surprising and innovative turn on serial murder plots, and then keep turning. Did you develop the variation on the theme, as you will, while you were writing, or was it an element that you created at the inception of the book?

John Lutz: First of all, thank you for your kind words. Positive feedback is much appreciated in the lonely profession. Most of the novel is predetermined in a free-flowing synopsis, but I try to keep an open mind while I write so I can adapt and adjust if one element or another seems to be working well, or provides opportunity.

BRC: The murders in NIGHT KILLS involve a particularly and deliciously creepy brother-and-sister team who seem drawn from real life. Perhaps it’s because they remind me of a pair of siblings I used to know, but Victor and Gloria seem to be very much of the real world. Were there any current events that inspired what occurs in NIGHT KILLS?

JL: No, nothing in particular inspired the creation of these murderous siblings. It seemed to me that it would be effective to develop their too-close and twisted relationship as it represents such a strong, perhaps innate taboo.

BRC: Computer dating plays a part in NIGHT KILLS. There are a number of commercials for such sites that seem to be in heavy rotation on commercial and cable television. Was it one of those spots that perhaps provided the impetus for you to write NIGHT KILLS? Or was it something else?

JL: All the advertising for computer dating did catch my attention. I’ve long been intrigued by circumstances in which normally cautious and reasonable people take uncharacteristically unreasonable risks. Like advertising for a roommate, or moving into a new neighborhood and letting a stranger’s 14-year-old girl babysit the infant children --- or dating a stranger they know only from the Internet.

BRC: One of my favorite elements of NIGHT KILLS was the return of Frank Quinn and company. You are no stranger to writing series fiction, but there is something special about Quinn and his team that really hits home here. Do you have more novels in the series planned? If so, do you have the story arcs all plotted?

JL: I do plan on using Quinn, Pearl and Fedderman as continuing characters, as the chemistry between them has proved interesting. Also, Pearl’s mother has possibilities. All these characters have the capacity to keep getting into trouble. I’ve always admired that.

BRC: One of the many special elements of the Frank Quinn novels is the prickly dynamic that exists among Quinn, Pearl and Fedderman. Quinn and Pearl, of course, must deal with the after-effects of their prior relationship. Fedderman and Pearl, for their part, seem to be engaged in a constant game of one-upmanship. What is intriguing, however, is the manner in which the constant give and take that exists among the three players keeps them sharp and competing with each other, even as it propels them toward a solution to the particular case on which they are working. While you make the presentation of this dynamic look easy, it must take a lot of work. What percentage of writing NIGHT KILLS do you estimate involves getting that dynamic, that dialogue between those characters, just right?

JL: It would be difficult to express it as a percentage, but I do spend quite a bit of time on that dynamic. Part of the trick is to have Quinn use all that prickliness and combativeness to advantage. He --- more than the other two --- has an objective view of it, when he’s not mooning over Pearl, or angry with her.

BRC: On a related note, the dialogue, particularly the wisecracking and sarcastic give and take that goes on with Quinn, is another element of their relationship that makes the series so enjoyable. How do you get that dialogue just right? Do you try it out on others? Do you read it out loud to yourself? Or do you use some other method to get it just right?

JL: If I tried it out on my friends I’d have no friends. Strangers have chased me considerable distances. I think the key to making such dialogue effective is to have a firm grasp of the characters so that it seems to flow naturally.

BRC: An intriguing though secondary element of NIGHT KILLS is the manner in which political gamesmanship within the New York Police Department interferes with, and actually inhibits, an ongoing investigation into a series of murders. During your research, did you find fact to back up this fiction?

JL: I’m most interested in the NYPD as a huge bureaucracy, rife with political infighting, as are most bureaucracies. Like Enron only with guns. And of course, the news regularly provides us with plenty of unfortunate facts about the NYPD (or any other large police department). I have the greatest respect for the cops themselves, who have to operate on a different level out on the street. I try to portray theirs as the difficult job that it is.

BRC: Many readers think of authors as doing nothing but writing, and writing constantly. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time, if indeed you have any?

JL: I read, go out to dine with friends, follow Major League baseball, attend live theater, travel, read some more. Write constantly.

BRC: You have been writing for so long --- since the 1970s --- that it is easy to forget that you had a life before your writing career began. What did you do? And do you have any regrets from leaving that profession?

JL: I had a number of jobs, including civilian employee of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, and freight handler in the Teamsters. I crossed the line from reader to writer early, and while working other jobs was always planning on a writing career. I have no regrets whatsoever about taking up writing as a profession, to the exclusion of any other.

BRC: On a related note, is there anything that you did at the beginning of your writing career that you wish you had done differently? Alternatively, was there anything you did that you feel you were very fortunate or very wise to have done?

JL: There are a few things I would have done differently in the early years, but that would have involved my being smarter when I was younger, and I wasn’t. I have been lucky, now and then amazingly so, both in circumstance and with the people I’ve associated with in the writing world. Luck might be more important than talent.

BRC: Do you have plans to write any stand-alone novels in the future?

JL: Sort of. I wrote a crime caper short story that I’d someday like to use as the basis for a novel, and I fancy that it would remain upright without a bookend.

BRC: While you are writing, do you prefer quiet and isolation, or stimulation? Do you listen to music while you write? If you listen to music, to what do you prefer to listen?

JL: I do like a reasonably quiet place to write, but after a few minutes I tend to block out whatever noise there is, be it sirens, jackhammers or music. But who knows, maybe the right kind of music would seep into my unconscious and affect what I write. My choice would be movie scores written by Bernard Herrmann.

BRC: What books have you read in the past six months that you would care to recommend to our readers?

JL: I’ve been reading some great older popular novels, including Eric Ambler’s THE LIGHT OF DAY and Len Deighton’s GOODBYE, MICKEY MOUSE. Among the newer books I would recommend are Stuart M. Kaminsky’s PEOPLE WHO WALK IN DARKNESS and Thomas H. Cook’s MASTER OF THE DELTA. Also, anything by David McCullough.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

JL: Another Quinn novel, URGE TO KILL, is in the works and scheduled to be published in the fall of ’09. It will be nothing like that crime caper novel I mentioned.